Israelis call it the “big trip” – an extended trek to exotic destinations between completing military or national service and continuing with life. At any given time, thousands of young Israelis are traveling in remote locations, often in poor countries. So why not volunteer while there?

That was the concept that motivated three Israeli army officer veterans, fresh from a trip to Thailand, to establish Heroes for Life (in Hebrew, Fighters without Borders) in 2013 as a vehicle “to show the world the compassionate face of former IDF soldiers.”

A Heroes for Life volunteer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: courtesy

When ISRAEL21c first wrote about this unique organizationin September 2016, its English name was Fighters for Life and it operated two-week volunteering gigs in Gondar, Ethiopia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Mumbai, India.

Less than three years later, the renamed Heroes for Life is sending about 5,000 volunteers each year on missions that have so far assisted some 4,100 children.

In addition to the original locations, Heroes for Life has started two-week volunteering programs in Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Panama, Peru, Vietnam, South Africa and Uganda.

Heroes for Life volunteer in South Africa. Photo: courtesy

“Our 14th site will be Colombia next year, and I will head the delegation,” Heroes for Life Vice President of Development and Education Ben Markovitch tells ISRAEL21c.

“Every year we open five more destinations because when you have a lot of people who want to be part of your delegations you have to keep up with demand. In 2021 we’ll be in 20 countries and will be one of the biggest organizations of its kind in the world.”

IDF veterans join Heroes for Life because they want to help overseas communities. Photo: courtesy

Markovitch volunteered with HFL for two weeks in Ethiopia in the spring of 2017, and he enthusiastically joined the management team thereafter.

“Veterans want to give, and I think that’s the main reason for our amazing growth,” Markovitch says.

Heroes for Life painting in Nepal. Photo: courtesy

Those chosen to be HFL volunteers pay for their air fare; the cost of the rest of the program is covered by donations. Each delegation includes 20 to 30 members, including at least a few fluent in the native language of their destination. Medical professionals, such as dentists, join the group if requested by the local community.

Israeli dentists and doctors join Heroes for Life delegations upon request of the destination community. Photo: courtesy

“Our volunteers spend the half of their day working in the schools teaching whatever subjects the head of the school wants,” Markovitch explains.

Heroes for Life volunteer teachers in Mexico. Photo: courtesy

The other half of the day is dedicated to projects like painting and fixing schools and homes. “All the places we work are underprivileged and need our support and help,” Markovitch says.

Heroes for Life volunteers painting in Guatemala City. Photo: courtesy

HFL returns to work with the population in each place every year to assure continuity and a greater impact.

For example, in Gondar, Ethiopia, the Israeli volunteers have been teaching blind and mute kids since 2016. They also renovated a shelter-residence north of Addis Ababa and brought a dentist to treat children living in the shelter and provide training for local healthcare professionals.

Guy Suskin volunteering with Heroes for Life in Guatemala. Photo: courtesy

Guy Suskin went to Guatemala last summer with HFL.

“It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” he tells ISRAEL21c. Suskin is 26 and had already taken his “big trip” but he wanted to do something meaningful in the summers between his studies toward a degree in sports psychology.

He and his cohort worked in what is known as the “garbage neighborhood” of Guatemala City because it is where all the city’s garbage is carted. “The smells took a while to get used to and it was hard at first,” he admits. “And my Spanish isn’t so good.”

However, he quickly learned that kicking around a soccer ball with teens in the school where he was teaching English and history enabled them to connect through the universal language of sports. He bonded not only with the kids but also with his group. “We still see each other today,” he says.

Ofir Shalgy, 22, went with HFL to Khayelitsha, South Africa, last February. In the mornings she taught 11-year-olds math, English and geography, and in the afternoons her group did repairs around the distressed neighborhood.

“We looked a like little aliens; I’m blond with blue eyes,” she recalls with a laugh.“For the children, it didn’t matter what color we are; they were just happy we were there. For the adults it was harder, but they were grateful. They were in shock that people from Israel came to volunteer in their neighborhood.”

Heroes for Life volunteer Ofir Shalgy teaching in South Africa. Photo: courtesy

She traveled around South Africa for two months afterward. “Israelis travel all over the world after their service and this lets us do good for two weeks of our Big Trip,” Shalgy tells ISRAEL21c.

Wherever possible, HFL delegations devote Sundays to the local Jewish community. Depending on the community, they may assist with Maccabi sports clubs or teachsubjects such as Hebrew and Jewish culture.

A Heroes for Life volunteer and a new friend in Argentina. Photo: courtesy

“The local Jewish communities want to know about the IDF and they enjoy getting to know each other,” says Markovitch. Contacts are made through local partners such as the Chabad House, Israeli embassy or Israeli consulate.

“I don’t think there is any other place in the world where people so young thought of something so noble,” said HFL’s president, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi, retired commander of the Israel Air Force and former CEO of El Al Israel Airlines.

Many former HFL volunteers don’t want to stop giving back to the community after the two-week experience, so now the organization has started working with underprivileged populations in Israel.

“Last year we established an alumni organization which does volunteer projects all over the country,” Markovitch adds.

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פורסם על ידי ‏לוחמים ללא גבולות Heroes for Life‏ ב- יום חמישי, 16 במאי 2019

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